Remembering an inspirational family

Posted in Blog, Christianity

(c) John Wesleys House & The Museum of Methodism; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Wesleys were a remarkable family and dynasty. In 1741 John Wesley began his ministry of travelling and preaching that took him throughout Britain, covering an estimated 250,000 miles, mainly on horseback. He was not always well received, frequently facing mobs, stoning and sometimes hostile Anglican clergy. He preached over 40,000 sermons and wrote thousands of letters. Eventually, however he became a respected national figure. A pioneer of popular education, he founded Christian schools and foundling hospitals, opened dispensaries for the sick and poor, experimented with electrolysis and wrote a pamphlet on electricity. He used a machine which produced an electric shock to help people suffering from depression. He campaigned for prison reform, helping to pay prisoners’ debts and hiring teachers for the children of debtors. He started lending societies, advancing small amounts of working capital to those wanting to start their own businesses.

His brother Charles was also a preacher but is mainly remembered today for writing between 6,500 and 10,000 hymns many of which are still popular today. Although John and Charles are associated with the foundation of Methodism, neither of them ever left the Church of England.  On his deathbed Charles sent for the Rector of St Marylebone Parish Church, John Harley, and is reported to have said to him ‘Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.’ At the age of 80, he died on 29 March 1788, in London, and his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England.

When we celebrate Pentecost, I always doubt whether anyone has expressed the spiritual meaning of the heavenly fire referred to in Acts 2:3 better than Charles Wesley:

O thou who camest from above

The pure celestial fire to impart,

Kindle a flame of sacred love

On the mean altar of my heart!

There let it for thy glory burn

With inextinguishable blaze,

And trembling to its source return,

In humble prayer and fervent praise.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire

To work, and speak, and think for thee;

Still let me guard the holy fire,

And still stir up thy gift in me;

Ready for all thy perfect will,

My acts of faith and love repeat,

Till death thy endless mercies seal,

And make the sacrifice complete.

Fortunately, the popularity of the hymn has been enhanced and preserved by a splendid tune, Hereford, written by none other than Charles’s grandson, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, who became organist and succentor at Exeter cathedral from 1835 to 1842. (A succentor helped the precentor with the preparation and conduct of the liturgy including psalms and responses.) You can see his memorial in the cathedral today. Although Samuel went on from Exeter to hold appointments at Leeds Minster and Winchester and Gloucester cathedrals before becoming Professor of Organ at the Royal Academy of Music in 1850, he is buried next to his daughter in St. Bartholomew’s Cemetery in Exeter by the old City Wall.

When you sing this wonderful hymn at the season of Pentecost, spare a thought for Charles Wesley, who was inspired to write the words and his talented grandson who composed the tune.